Memory Lane: Writer Helene Wong explores identity and cultural clashes

Young Helene and her parents, Willie and Dolly Wong, after a wedding, 1950s.
BEING CHINESE

Young Helene and her parents, Willie and Dolly Wong, after a wedding, 1950s.

Helene Wong was born of Chinese parents in 1949, the year the People's Republic of China came into being.

But her birthplace wasn't China.

It was Taihape, New Zealand. 

The wedding day of Helene Wong and Colin Knox, February 1972, with Helene's parents, nieces and sisters Jean and Marina.
BEING CHINESE

The wedding day of Helene Wong and Colin Knox, February 1972, with Helene's parents, nieces and sisters Jean and Marina.

Her Wellington-born mother Dolly Chan and her father Willie Wong, who came to New Zealand as a boy, had returned briefly to China for their arranged marriage. 

Helene and her siblings were "Weet-Bix kids" and the family lived a typical Kiwi lifestyle, first in the small settlement of Utiku, where their father ran the general store, and then in Lower Hutt, where he owned fruit and vegetable shops.

Growing up, the casual racism Helene Wong encountered among some white people was a constant reminder that she carried two different worlds around with her. Which one did she really belong to? 

The cast of One in Five at Victoria University Memorial Theatre, 1971. From left: Dave Smith, Cathy Downes, John Clarke, ...
BEING CHINESE

The cast of One in Five at Victoria University Memorial Theatre, 1971. From left: Dave Smith, Cathy Downes, John Clarke, Roger Hall and Helene Wong.

The sometimes traumatic journey to find an answer is powerfully explored in her book Being Chinese: A New Zealander's Story.

Wong – Auckland writer, actress and Listener film critic – spoke at the Palmerston North City Library last Wednesday about her book and life, as part of a prelude to the Festival of Cultures.

Wong was "the greengrocer's daughter" – a girl who loved books and theatre and started working in the family shop from the age of 7. "The Chinese had the perfect solution to child idleness: The Shop or The Garden," Wong writes. "You were put to work." She now thinks working so young was a privilege. "I understood at firsthand how parents earned a living to feed and clothe us." 

The cover of Helene Wong's book: Being Chinese: a New Zealander's Story.
WARWICK SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

The cover of Helene Wong's book: Being Chinese: a New Zealander's Story.

Wong never learned to speak Chinese. It wasn't important then. Fitting in, downplaying one's Chinese-ness, was much more important.

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The school kids laughed at the Chinese roast duck or salted fish in her lunchbox.

There were moments when rough boys would call her "ching-chong" and "slit-eyes". Her traditional parents, schooled in avoiding conflict, told her to ignore it. 

"If we were wary around Europeans, knowing we could never take acceptance for granted and that at any time we could be ambushed by abuse, our social life with other Chinese was the opposite." There were happy family gatherings, with joking, teasing, shouts of welcome and feasting.

Later, in Wellington, there was Victoria University, joining the new Bats theatre company, working for the public service – and getting married to Colin Knox, of Maori heritage. They've now been married for 45 years.

She became the "Think Tank Lady" as the sole woman on Prime Minister Rob Muldoon's advisory council, handling social policy.

But in 1980, on a trip with her parents to their ancestral villages in southern China, Wong had a huge, unexpected emotional reaction. "I'd never experienced anything like that in my life." 

For the next 30-plus years, during a career as actress, theatre director, screen writer and researcher, Wong would return often to the constant question of identity. 

Travel – to Hong Kong, to San Franciso's Chinatown and two years studying Chinese culture in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when her husband received a fellowship to Harvard, brought everyday Chinese life into vivid focus.

But back in New Zealand, and entering her 40s, she went through a massive midlife crisis. It was "solely about my failure to resolve what I was here to do in life, because I couldn't see where the Chinese part fitted". 

However, "the best form of healing turned out to be the Canon typewriter I'd bought in Hong Kong… I wrote myself through it and out of it, and that's probably when I started to think I might be a writer" – an understatement given her vividly-written, unflinchingly honest memoir. 

Being Chinese pulls no punches about the 1990s, when a wave of new Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants to New Zealand reignited old prejudices among some sections of the population. Media headlines proclaimed an "Asian invasion", complete with vast numbers of Asians taking over some suburbs, and "evil Triad gangs setting up shop…"

There were racial insults in the street again. Even old-established New Zealand Chinese, who'd worked hard for acceptance, tended to disapprove of the flashy newcomers.  

As it happened, these newcomers would eventually pave the way for diversity and a new era of interest in Chinese culture. When Wong produced the Chinese segment "Footprint of the Dragon" for TV series Immigrant Nation, there were record viewer numbers.  

Wong jokes: "I knew we'd come a long way when I heard two white women talking in a supermarket, and one said to the other: What did you do for Chinese New Year?"

 Right now, Wong's latest project is part of the Auckland War Memorial Museum's new exhibition, Being Chinese in Aotearoa: A Photographic Journey.

She and graphic artist/novelist Ant Sang have created a display called The Quiet Achievers, from Gardens to Gold Medals. Sang supplied comic-book artworks (to be turned into a graphic novel), while Wong gathered the stories of non-stereotypical Chinese Aucklanders from seven categories: Food, business, arts, science, community, sports and war.

Being Chinese: A New Zealander's Story, is on the long-list for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 

Email: tinawhite29@gmail.com

 - Stuff

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